Public Denied Right to Know about Chemicals Used in Fracking

fracking well at dusk

Last Thursday, a Wyoming district court ruled against a lawsuit brought by public interest groups, including the Center for Effective Government, that sought to make public the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The identities of these chemicals can remain secret when companies make claims that fracking solution formulas are "trade secrets." The court upheld such claims, effectively denying the people of Wyoming access to accurate, complete, and detailed information about the chemicals that are being injected into the ground and that may affect their health.

"We are disappointed by the court's decision to prioritize commercial claims above public health concerns," said Katherine McFate, president of the Center for Effective Government. "Citizens should have access to the information they need to understand the risks of allowing drilling activity near their communities, ranches, and water supplies. Without information about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, public officials and citizens can't have an informed discussion of the trade-offs their communities face."

In 2010, Wyoming became the first state to pass a rule requiring disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking, following well publicized instances of water contamination near well sites. However, the rule contains an exemption for so-called "trade secrets," and the state announced in August 2011 that the identities of 146 chemicals submitted by 11 drilling companies had been granted trade secrets protections. At the time, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (WOGCC), the state agency with oversight over fracking, had allowed all but two exemption requests for trade secrets.

In March 2012, Earthjustice, a public interest law firm, filed a legal petition on behalf of the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch), Powder River Basin Resource Council, and the Wyoming Outdoor Council. Halliburton intervened on the state's side. The court's ruling upheld the WOGCC's decision to withhold trade secrets requests by Halliburton and other energy companies under Wyoming's open records law. The court found that the WOGCC's supervisor, who withheld the information, "acted reasonably."

With natural gas extraction and fracking expanding at a rapid rate, the trade secrets exemption is a tanker truck-sized loophole in Wyoming's rule and other state disclosure rules being passed across the country. A fast, secure, independent process is needed to evaluate trade secrets claims that block the release of critical public health information.

Rules should not allow commercial claims to supersede the public interest. We need to be extremely careful about protecting our natural resources, especially our drinking water, from toxic chemicals, and trade secret exemptions create oversight loopholes in state fracking rules.

back to Blog